The next two days were interesting as the two Hobbits of the Shire were joined by a third Hobbit, a distant cousin of Helko Sandybanks, Ora Watercress, a lawyer of Bree itself. He arrived the morning after the formal dinner, shortly after Bartolo and Persivo, and introduced himself.
“I certainly hope as you don’t mind if I join you,” he said almost apologetically, “but as it appears there’s a fair number of folks likely to be heading north to the building up Dead Man’s Dike way, some of my clients are interested in being considered as sources of goods that might well be needed. Therefore we have an interest in learning as how contracts and proposals ought to be written and presented for our own folk to be taken seriously.”
And so, much of that day was given to consideration of how sales contracts and delivery agreements were written, comparing how they were done in Gondor, the Shire, the Breelands, and in Arnor itself, using as examples some ancient contracts written some centuries earlier that Eregiel had left with Alvric the previous evening. Here Alvric found himself having to do much of the translation, for these documents had been written in Sindarin and Adunaic, the latter tongue he was at a loss to translate.
“I know this language was used extensively in Númenor,” he said, “but it has not been used in many centuries that I know of in Gondor. Even the Sindarin used here is somewhat different than that spoken in Gondor--and I suspect it is a purer form of the tongue than we use, for here it is spoken by Elves as well as Men while in Gondor no Elves have lingered.”
“But how could they have contracts so old as these are supposed to be?” Ora asked.
“According to the little Ranger Eregiel told me last evening before our other guests arrived, near Fornost caverns were being used to house the archives of Arnor much as has been done for at least two millenia in Gondor, with the major archive of the realm being housed in the stone chambers and caverns hollowed beneath Minas Tirith. The constant temperature and dryness adds much to the life of those records and materials preserved within them. He tells me Argeleb the Second, the king who granted the lands of the Shire to the Hobbits who live there now, contracted with Dwarves to have those caverns expanded and made more proper to their use; and although at one time Fornost fell to the forces of Angmar the hidden entrances were not found by them, and so many records were preserved past the fall of the Kingdom. He states, however, that most of the records that were of greatest importance were taken to Imladris to be housed in the archives there, including the Rolls of the Kings and the records of the lineages of the lords of the North Kingdom. So it is that those records have been amended over the years, and the King could provide proof he is indeed descended from Elendil and his sons Isildur and Anárion both. Although the strength of his healing gift and the words of the sons of Elrond added authority to his claim to the Winged Crown, not that any with any knowledge of history could question it once Elrond himself arrived in Minas Tirith and surrendered to him the Sceptre of Annúminas.”
Alvric looked off, shaking his head at the enormity of the wonders he’d seen in the last year. “Elves and Dwarves both again visiting Minas Tirith, and the folk of the Pheriannath appearing out of legend to free us of the terror of Mordor upon our borders.” He looked back to meet Bartolo’s eyes. “Who would have believed so many folk yet lingered in Middle Earth, and would make themselves known to the people of Gondor in this time? You Hobbits may have considered yourselves somewhat isolated, but at least you have had commerce with Men and Dwarves, and have perhaps, at least some of you, known Elves, or at least of them, all of your lives. And we have dwelt in a great nation with ties to other great nations, but the only race beyond our own we have dealt with has been the twisted race of orcs for time out of mind, to the point that since the death of Eärnur it may as well have been that the other races had not existed as far as we were concerned. And through our Lord King Aragorn Elessar all these and more have again been made known to us, and now visit us yet again.”
That evening again Persivo and Petunia went out to the porch where the games were set, and as they played a game of drafts the lad told his sister what had been said that day.
“You didn’t discuss Cousin Frodo Baggins today, then?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Although, what he said about Pheriannath appearing out of legend to stop Mordor being a threat is important, I think. Pheriannath is their name for us Hobbits, after all. But how could Hobbits stop armies?”
“I don’t know. Certainly the Captains learned to fight with swords, and how to figure out how to best fight the ruffians. Destria’s da was one of the Shiriffs who was supposed to arrest them when the Travelers came away from the Shiriff House by the Bridge, and he took off his hat with the feather in it when he saw they were planning to fight back. He said Captain Merry knew just what to do and set up everything so there wasn’t much the Big Men could do once they was surrounded.”
“But they didn’t know how to fight before they left the Shire, not like Eregiel’s learnt to do all his life, Pet. Someone had to teach them.” Persi was quiet for a time. “Cousin Frodo said at the banquet for the lawyers that they went south with the one who’s King now. I suppose he might have taught them some.”
Pet shrugged, and jumped two of her brother’s pieces. “Destria’s da said Cousin Frodo Baggins didn’t help fight. Instead he seemed to be more worried our folk might hurt someone what wanted to stop fighting, and Merry Brandybuck told him he wouldn’t stop the ruffians by feeling sorry for them. He did have a sword, though, and so did Sam Gamgee--swords and mail, same as the Captains, but Sam Gamgee’s was goldish, and Cousin Frodo Baggins’s mail was finer, like it was made of wire instead of rings like the others.”
The lad looked up to catch her eye. “Well, he and Sam Gamgee are called ‘Lord’ now--you heard Glorinlas Gildorion and Eregiel. But if he helped fight in the wars down southaways, then I suppose as he might of decided he doesn’t like fighting any more.”
She nodded slightly. “I wouldn’t like fighting, I don’t think.”
He looked down and appeared to be studying the board when he confided, almost grudgingly by the sound of it, “Every time the Gatherer and Sharers come--came--I wanted to strike them all, maybe beat them into bloody pulps.”
Petunia looked at her brother in shock. “You did? But you never tried any of it.”
“Too many of them as tried it ended up being beaten back, Pet, and either killed or dragged away to the Lockholes. You heard what they did to Will Whitfoot and Fredegar Bolger and some of those as followed Captain Freddy--almost starved the Mayor and Captain Freddy to death, they did. That’s why Cousin Frodo Baggins is deputy Mayor, after all, ’cause old Flour Dumpling is still recovering. They must of hurt his leg, too, for when we saw him in Michel Delving he had a cane and Missus Whitfoot was putting a stool under his leg as he sat on the bench by his door. And I heard Missus Greenman telling Gammer Alma as Captain Freddy has a healer living with him now, for his heart was hurt from him not getting right treatment or food.”
“I wonder why they call Cousin Frodo Baggins the Ring-bearer?” said a voice near their elbows, and both jumped as they realized Alyssa had come out to join them and they’d not heard her arrival.
“Who calls Cousin Frodo Baggins the Ring-bearer?” Petunia asked, once she was over her startlement.
“Well, the Elf Mr. Glorinlas called him that, and the Rangers who’ve been to the Prancing Pony have called him it, too. I heard them today, when three went to the marketplace and were having some pasties and sausages at a food-seller’s stand. One of them, an older one, was sayin’ as it was a shame as his own folk didn’t appreciate just how important it was what Lord Frodo did, and another one agreed and called him the Ring-bearer, too.”
Persivo and Petunia exchanged glances. “Mum’s rings never came back to her,” he murmured. “We got all the rest back when they found it with Cousin Timono, but not her rings. And Mr. Goold and Missus Goold didn’t get their rings they give each other as promise gifts.”
“Cousin Hyacinth didn’t get her rings back, either,” Petunia said. “She was telling Auntie Lavinia of it. She had two, one from her Gammer Bracegirdle and one from her Great-gammer Baggins, and she didn’t get either one back. She has most of the rest back. And she says as even Cousin Lobelia had the ring she kept what had been worn by her husband Otho taken by one of the Big Men as stayed at Bag End.”
“So--they wanted rings in especial?” Persivo asked, summing up what they now realized. “But they took those rings after Cousin Frodo Baggins sold Bag End to Lotho and was gone, for he left Hobbiton afore--before the Big Men even came into the Shire.”
“But what’s so special about rings?” Alyssa asked. “Why’d they want rings?”
“We don’t know,” her older sister told her.
“Did Cousin Frodo Baggins have any rings?” asked Persivo.
“I guess he inherited the one his dad used to have,” Pet commented. “Cousin Hyacinth was telling Auntie Lavinia Cousin Drogo Baggins used to wear one all the time, and that Cousin Lobelia told how hard a time they had getting it off his finger after he died, for his body had bloated in the water.”
“Ooh, that’s awful!” Lyssa said, shuddering.
“Was Cousin Drogo’s ring special or something?” Petunia wondered.
No one could answer that question, and at last, once Petunia had managed to take Persivo’s last pieces, they put the counters away and went back to their rooms, no closer than they’d been to begin with to understanding what it was that Cousin Frodo Baggins and his gardener friend had done to earn them each the title of Lord.
There was an envelope lying on the tray on which breakfast was brought the following morning. The writing was rather simple, Petunia noted as she saw it was addressed to her mother and picked it up to give it to her, not anywhere as graceful as that of Delphinium Bracegirdle or as ordered as that of Bartolo. Delphinium accepted it with a murmured thanks, and swiftly had it open and was reading it. “What is it?” Bartolo asked as he finished setting the stud into his shirt cuff and joined the rest at the table.
“It’s an invitation to spend the day with Helko Sandybanks’s family in their hole in Bree Hill. It appears Flora Sandybanks is to have a luncheon for those who help to arrange the garden fair right before Midsummers, and having heard from her third cousin twice removed Elko Grubb of Hardbottle about the gardens we have about our hole at Garden Place she thought I would like to attend. And the children are invited also--Beldo is looking forward to playing with Rikki, while Freesia wants to introduce the lasses to her sisters and have a tea party for her dolls with Alyssa.
“Tell me, children,” she said, turning to her progeny, “would you like to go, too?”
Begonia, Alyssa, and Enrico were all immediately excited, but Petunia found herself less so, for she’s had her own plans for the day. But it appeared there was nothing for it, so once they’d seen Bartolo and Persivo off to their day’s meeting with Master Alvric and Master Ora she found herself helping Alyssa into a dress appropriate for both visiting and play, then helping lace up Begonia’s frock, then rushing herself into the first frock she could find that was hers.
She liked Mr. Grubb, and was glad he’d written to his cousin in Bree about the Bracegirdle gardens, although she knew that the gardens at Bag End in Hobbiton were supposed to be the most beautiful of their kind in all the Shire. But at the same time she was disappointed, for she had wanted, if possible, to speak with one of the Rangers privately. How she was to do it she had no idea, for she’d not be allowed to go into the common room of the Prancing Pony alone, of course. It was one thing for mothers to take their children into an inn for a luncheon or early tea; quite another thing for a young lass to go into a common room alone in the daytime--that was Not Done, as her mother would remind her, not by a lass of any breeding, at least.
She’d thought perhaps to stand outside the inn until a Ranger came out, but then she wasn’t truly certain there was a Ranger left in town. Master Eregiel had ridden out northward yesterday at midmorning, with a smiling yet somewhat solemn wave of acknowledgment to the younger children of Bartolo and Delphinium Bracegirdle. Were there any others in town today?
The Sandybanks’ smial was quite a cheerful one, and the table for the luncheon was already in place in the front garden. There were nine Sandybanks children, for Freesia and Beldo had two sisters and two brothers and three cousins--two lads and a lass. Agatha was the eldest of Freesia’s sisters. She was nineteen and was very interested in the local lads; and she and Begonia were quickly as thick as thieves, chattering about frocks and lads and whispering about their experiments with drawing the eyes of certain lads or how they tried to avoid the eyes of others. Dorido was sixteen, and rolled his eyes at the talk of the older lasses, quickly absenting himself to go play at golf with the older lad cousins and the other teen lads who lived about Bree Hill. Bedlo and Enrico helped some with the setting out of chairs, stools, and benches, then left to play roopie, while Alyssa, Freesia, and her younger sister Bettina quickly set out the little table made for the smaller Hobbit children, and soon were involved with their own tea party, one soon joined by little brother Dardo, who was only a faunt of five, after all, and then by the lasses of other Hobbitesses come to the luncheon.
Petunia felt a bit left out, and soon realized that Freesia’s cousin Ronica felt much the same. Ronica was sixteen, and much shorter than Pet was, but when at last she and Petunia were released from their help in setting out plates and tiles on which to set the serving dishes they found themselves retreating to the far side of the yard. “Well,” Ronica said, “at least we ain’t expected to sit and take part in the talk. I have some pocket money saved up--would ye like to go to the market and have a pastie there? It would be far less boring than listenin’ to them goin’ on about how the walkin’ routes will be set up for those doin’ the judging.”
“Could we?” Petunia asked, surprised at the freedom the younger lass claimed for herself.
“Mum’ll be glad to see the back of me, for fear as I’ll play a prank like I did last year when I dropped a frog in the punch bowl just afore Missus Averia Sackville dipped herself up some. It was quite funny, really, for Missus Sackville is quite full of herself, you see; but Mum was terrible embarrassed. I had to apologize and all, o’ course, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat and Mum knows it full well enough. Well, would ye like to go?”
Surprised and pleased, Petunia agreed, and the two of them quickly received permission; and with a few coppers from her mother to tie into her handkerchief, she set off at the side of her smaller companion for the marketplace. “How is it,” she asked Ronica as they left Bree Hill and headed for the center of the village, “that you have a cousin living in the Shire?”
Ronica shrugged. “We’re related through me mum’s folks in Archet. Ye see Mum’n Uncle Ned were Underhills. Lots of Underhills live in holes along the ridge there on the east side o’ town. Uncle Ned’n Mum was second and third o’ ten childern. When Gaffer Bando died the year so many was sick o’ the ague and the cattarh and the lung sickness, Uncle Ed inherited the farm, and Uncle Ned’n Mum decided as they oughta leave so’s him’n Gammer Platina wouldn’t have to work harder to feed them’s well as the littler ones. Mum wasn’t of age yet, but she felt strong as it was time for her to find her own way. So they come here to Bree, ’n’ Mum took a job with me gaffer Ram mindin’ the little’uns, as our gammer here’d died o’ the lung sickness, same as Gaffer Bando.
“Dad was eldest, ’n’ him’n Mum fell in love, ’n’ when she turned twenty-six they was married. Uncle Helko was already in love with Aunt Carnation, ye see, ’n’ them was married not long after, ’n’ they decided to share a hole. The little’uns all moved out as they got old enough, and Gaffer Ram, he died last year o’ old age.
“Anyways, Gammer Platina Underhill, she had an older cousin what went to Buckland to work fer the Brandybucks, ’n’ she married a Grubb what moved to Hardbottle, ’n’ their grandson’s our cousin Elko.
“Gammer Platina, she was born a Bagger, she was. She said as the Baggers is related to the Bagginses and the Sackinses and the Sackvilles, you go far enough back, and she had a scroll to show it, she did. Uncle Ned’s got the scroll now, not what he can read it. Gammer Platina, she could read it, though.”
“Your Gammer was born a Bagger? I never heard of them.”
“She said her family come long ago from over some mountains, far, far away, long, long ago. Said as they kept it all on the scroll what was in the family for a long, long time. Ye know the Sackvilles ’n’ the Sackinses ’n’ the Bagginses, though?”
They’d stopped, having come to the market square. “Well, of course I know the Sackvilles and the Bagginses. My mum was born a Baggins, and our Cousin Frodo Baggins is family head--he had it from his Uncle Bilbo as was family head before him. And our dad’s cousin Lotho was family head for the Sackvilles, not what the Sackvilles even want to allow for it now, as horrid as he was. He’s dead now, and Roto, as is family head after him, writ him out of the book.”
Ronica looked up at her, shocked. “He didn’t! What in Middle Earth’d him do to get writ out of his own family book?”
Petunia shook her head, not wanting to talk about it, but when the other lass kept insisting, she at last admitted, “You know all them Big Men what come up here as tried to take over the Breelands and the Shire, don’t you? Well, he invited them to come into the Shire, and used them to take over everything. And he was buying up all kinds of property he didn’t have a right to, and was cheating folks, too, he was. The last one as come in was Sharkey, only he had his servant Wormtongue kill Lotho, or so everybody says. Only no one knows what he did with Lotho’s body after--they’ve not found it yet, at least. When his mum realized just how awful things were ’cause of him even she didn’t blame Cousin Benlo for writing him out of the Book of Bracegirdles--Aunt Lobelia was my dad’s own aunt, after all. Dad says as probably Cousin Frodo Baggins is the only family head as hasn’t written him out of a family book--he thinks Cousin Frodo’s just too soft-hearted.”
“That’s awful.” Ronica was still shaking her head, unable to understand how any Hobbit could be so bad he’d be written out of two of the family books he belonged in.
Looking around the square, Petunia was heartened to see a tall figure in a grey cloak heading toward another tall figure, this one dressed in a black cloak edged in silver. “Oh, there’s a Ranger!” she said brightly.
Ronica looked around, and on spotting the one in grey nodded. “Yes, that’s Black Glove.”
The smaller lass nodded. “It’s what we call’im, ’cause him wears a black glove on his right hand. And you look close, you’ll see as his sword’s on the wrong side, too.”
“There’s a wrong side for a sword?”
“Yes. The rest all wear theirs on the left, ’n’ him wears his on the right, you see.”
“Oh. What kind of Man is the one in the black cape?”
“I dunno. They’re new ones, those in the black. They’re mostly real tall, like the Rangers, but they dress nice, they do. All that silver broidery on the front with the tree and stars....”
Petunia straightened up, shocked. “Trees and stars? A white tree and seven stars?”
Ronica nodded. “You know about them?”
“Oh, yes--Captain Peregrin wears that--says as it’s his uniform from the King.”
“There really is a King?”
“Oh, yes--everybody says so--Cousin Frodo Baggins, Captain Meriadoc and Captain Peregrin and Samwise Gamgee--they all say so. So does Master Alvric and that Elf we met, Mr. Glorinlas Gildorion, and even the Dwarves at the Prancing Pony. There was two as went by our parlor last evening, talking about whether or not they’d go with their kinsman Gimli south to the King’s city to help fix it up after the war.”
Ronica’s eyes were large. “You really, really met an Elf?”
“Yes, as we were riding here we did, on the road from the Brandywine Bridge to Bree. He rode alongside us, and told us about seeing our Cousin Frodo Baggins years ago, and Cousin Bilbo, too. He said they’re both Elf-friends, and I guess it’s a very special thing to be an Elf-friend.” She looked back toward where they’d seen the Ranger and the other Man in black, but didn’t see them anywhere about, then finally spotted two figures, one in grey and one in black, headed for a particular food vendor’s stall at the end of the row. “There they are. Let’s go closer.”
Getting closer to the Men was not easy, however, for it seemed everyone in Bree (save for those Hobbit ladies attending Flora Sandheaver’s luncheon, of course) was in the market square seeking some special item or another, and that fully half of those were between the two Hobbit lasses and the food stall where the two tall Men were purchasing something to tide them over. But at last they came close enough to hear them.
“And they call these what?” the black-garbed stranger asked.
“Pasties. They are very popular here in the northlands, you will find, and are filled with a variety of different meats and vegetables. But for the best drink in all of the Breelands you must have some of the ale from the Inn of the Prancing Pony--Gandalf laid it under a spell of excellence to last at least seven years, and the spell has slightly more than five years left to run at this point.”
“You know him as Mithrandir, there in Gondor.”
“I see. Well, at least a few of the missives I carry are intended for him.”
“I will be heading for Rivendell in a few days and will deliver them to Elrond, who will see them into Gandalf’s hands, if he is not dwelling there at this time. The missives I bear from Lord Halladan are back in my rooms in the inn, so we will need to go there that I might fetch them and give them into your hands. And how was my beloved Lord Cousin when you left him?”
“The King? Very well indeed. He and our Lady Queen were to leave three days after me to do a progress through Lossarnach, and Master Galador was in quite a terror that our Lord Elessar and Lady Arwen would quite ignore protocol at some untoward time and reveal just how approachable they are.” They both laughed. “And what news of the Ring-bearer?” the messenger continued.
They could hear the voice of Black Glove grow more solemn. “He seeks to serve his own people and to make right what his benighted kinsman allowed to go to evil. All four have labored deeply, and it is told us that Lord Samwise has wed, his vows heard by Lord Frodo himself.”
“There was some talk of the need for the Shire to be scoured there in the Citadel, but it has been difficult for us to accept there would be any among the Pheriannath, particularly one so closely related to the Ring-bearer himself, who would be so apt to evil.”
“Saruman did his work well, from what we can tell. His folk had this Lotho convinced he commanded them, only letting him realize they had taken full control at the end. The Ring-bearer’s letters to Halladan are full of the grief of it. That he should undergo all he did, only to return to find his own land as heavily beset as any other was most unfair. But the other Periannath rose up at the call of Sir Meriadoc and Captain Peregrin; and Lord Samwise has seen to much of the renewal of the land while Lord Frodo labors in the Mayor’s office to bring all back to rightness again, and to find out all the ways his people’s laws were perverted to allow this to come to be.
“Ah, well, come, and we will head for the inn so that we can do the exchange of correspondence. Did you go to the gate at the Brandywine Bridge yet?”
“Yes, yesterday afternoon. I met with some of your folk who appear to patrol the road between the Shire and here in Bree, and they showed me where I might safely camp during the night.”
The two were drawing away toward the main street, and the lasses, their own planned purchases of pasties forgotten, followed after in their wake. Suddenly, however, instead of continuing down the High Street toward the inn, the two of them turned off on a lane to the right, and the lasses immediately turned after them, trying to find where they’d gone.
Petunia was disappointed, for she saw no sign of the two tall figures anywhere along what could be seen of the lane. But as she turned to express her frustration to her companion, a great hand clamped down on her shoulder, and she looked up into the eyes of the Ranger she’d been following.
As had been true of Eregiel, he had eyes of a clear grey, and he was obviously very observant, to have realized he was being trailed by two young Hobbitesses. He was bearded, and his hair was mostly straight and hung to his shoulders, and very dark save for the small amount of grey at his temples. What age he might be Petunia couldn’t begin to guess, but there was a look of sternness to him that quite unnerved her. She was reminded of the walk back to the inn the other night, and Eregiel’s explanation that he was always on guard when he must go from one place to another.
She realized his other hand was on Ronica’s shoulder, and Ronica was so terrified she feared the younger lass might do something horrid, such as to faint away. “We don’t mean you any harm,” Petunia said with more force than she’d realized she had in her.
“Rarely do any of the Hobbit-kind offer a threat to any individual, but even more rarely will a Hobbit lass follow one of us, or even seek to look at us up close as you two have done, much less listen to our conversations.” He was examining the two of them closely. “Now, this one is indeed a lass from the village here,” he explained in low tones to his companion, “but this other I would say is from the Shire itself. It has been several years since I’ve ridden the Road west of the Brandywine Bridge, but this weaving is from the South Farthing, I’d say. I know of only one party from the Shire to be abiding in Bree at this time, so I must assume this is the daughter of the lawyer sent out by Lord Frodo to take instruction from Master Alvric of Gondor. Am I correct, young mistress?” he added, straightening to his full, amazing height.
“Yes,” Petunia admitted, embarrassed to hear her voice break into a squeak. “My father is Bartolo Bracegirdle from Hardbottle.”
He nodded. “I am sorry to have startled you, but as Rangers we are trained to note when we are being observed or followed, and then have learned to seek knowledge of who it is who does this as soon as we can. So, now I know one of our train; what is the purpose of your interest?”
Petunia straightened the bodice of her dress as she recovered her dignity. “I didn’t know we were doing anything wrong. It’s only I’d wanted to speak with a Ranger today, if I might, and as it appears Eregiel has left----”
His eyebrows lifted. “You know Eregiel’s name?” he asked, amazed.
“Well, yes, for we had dinner with him the other night at Mistress Denra Gorse’s house, there with Master Alvric.”
“Don’t your people use your proper names here in the Breelands?” the one in black and silver asked.
There was a look of sardonic humor in the grey eyes of Black Glove as he returned his attention to the other Man. “No, for the folk of Bree tend to call us by the names they devise themselves. Eregiel they have begun calling ‘Hound Man,’ and they know me as Black Glove.”
“Hound Man?” Ronica said. “Him’s a new one, and didn’t used to come here until after the rest o’ ye left for a time.”
“Yes, that’s right, for he’s only fairly recently come of age and finished his time under Berenion--the one your folk always knew as the Bear.”
She gave a most unladylike whistle. “The Bear? Me dad’s told stories o’ him from years back, what him did when Dad was but a faunt. Him was a tough one, him was, wadin’ into fights’n all.”
Black Glove laughed. “Well, let me set things aright. I am Gilfileg son of Gilthor, at your service, and this is Erengil son of Berestor of Ringlo Vale of Gondor, one of the King Elessar’s messengers from Minas Tirith, the southern capital. He has been sent north with messages to officials of the north kingdom, such as Lord Halladan, the Steward of Arnor, Barliman Butterbur as head of the Council of the Breelands, others of the King’s kinsmen among the Rangers of Eriador, and the Thain, Master, and Mayor of the Shire, plus the King’s Friends within the Shire.”
“Like my Cousin Frodo Baggins? He’s truly the King’s friend?” Petunia asked.
“Indeed, all four of the Travelers are the King’s friends, and are honored greatly by all peoples, and certainly this is true of Frodo Baggins.” He looked about. “If we stay here, we will very quickly be seen--two such Men as we speaking with two such maidens. Come--there is a private place near here.” So saying, he turned and led them along the lane to a door in the rear wall behind a house, checked both ways, then put his finger through a knothole, something clicked, and the gate opened. He waved the others through, and followed, closing the gate behind them.
They were within a surprisingly spacious yard behind a narrow house. “Our Lord Arathorn, Aragorn’s father, had this house purchased for him. Lindor was a warrior among us, and served Arador and then Arathorn. He was wounded in the next to last battle Arathorn fought, and lost his right hand. He and his wife Anelisë came to Bree and took over the running of the place. Now and then, when we must have Men here to either rest or to be our eyes and ears within the town, the house is opened to them. None give the inhabitants much heed, although their neighbors have learned that if any is in need the old couple, whom all know as the Greenwillows, will do what they can to aid them.” He led them to a pair of garden benches that faced one another over a bed of sweet William, and indicated the lasses should take the lower bench, one which was still rather high, leaving their legs dangling.
“So,” he said, “you wished to speak with a Ranger. I’m not certain how advisable that is, for if it gets out that anyone who wishes can actually approach us and carry on a conversation, I fear our reputations as ne’er-do-well vagabonds will be quickly forgotten. Then who will seek to ignore us pointedly any more?”
It took a moment for Petunia to realize the Man was joking, and suddenly she found herself giggling, followed by Ronica. Both Men were grinning broadly. A door opened and a tall woman with her white hair coiled tightly about her head came out, took in the sight of the four sitting on her garden benches, sniffed, and went back in. A few moments later she was back with a tray on which rested a jug of cider, four mugs, and a plate of sweet buns, which she brought to set on the end of the bench on which the two young Hobbits sat. She looked the lasses over, then commented, “Miss Ronica, does your mother have any idea where you are?”
“We told her we was goin’ to the marketplace for pasties, for she’s givin’ her luncheon today.”
“Oh, I see. So, she’s seeing to it Mistress Sackville’s punch doesn’t get another frog in it, is she?”
Ronica flushed as she murmured, “Yes’m.” The two Men laughed openly. Now they were all beginning to feel more at ease, Petunia was beginning to notice more about the Man in black, the one who’d been introduced as Erengil. He, too, was quite tall and well muscled, and in many ways he resembled the Ranger, although his hair was a bit longer and had more curl to it than Black Glove’s. He, too, had clear grey eyes, and appeared to be alert and discerning, much as had proven true of Eregiel and the Ranger by him. He unfastened the cloak he wore and draped it over the bench by him, revealing he wore a tabard over silvered mail, the tabard black and heavily embroidered with a tree with white blossoms under seven stars and a depiction of a shape with what appeared to be wings. “It’s like the one Pippin wears,” Pet said softly as she looked him over.
“You mean you know Captain Peregrin himself?” the Man answered. “Then he did wear his uniform home again. Excellent. I will inform the King when I see him again.”
“He wears it when he must be about the King’s business,” Petunia answered, “or at least that’s what he says. He has some Shire clothes now, but not a lot yet.” Then, she asked, “Do you know him?”
“I was of the Guard of the Citadel, and was one of those present when he took his vows of service under the Lord Steward Denethor, although I didn’t see him that often until after the Battle of the Pelennor, for he must serve on Lord Denethor himself. After the battle, when word came that the Steward had died in the Hallows, he stood his service in the Houses of Healing, attending on Lord Faramir and spending much of his free time with his kinsman Sir Meriadoc, who had been stricken in his defense of Théoden King of Rohan. He acquitted himself very well at the Black Gate--that all agree, though it nearly cost him his life. I am amazed at the resilience of your folk, for all four who came to our aid withstood terrible wounds and recovered so well from them.”
“Even our Cousin Frodo Baggins?”
“Yes, even your Cousin Frodo Baggins. He and Lord Samwise were both very near death when they were found, you see, and had to be called back to life by the power of the King. Even then they lay in healing sleep for two weeks in the reckoning of Middle Earth before they woke to our praise.”
Pet could feel her face color. “But what is it they did?”
“They haven’t told you, Lord Frodo’s kinsman?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’d like to understand.”
“You must realize,” the other Man explained to Erengil, “that for a Hobbit to tell his own story is seen as putting himself forward, and there can be few greater breaches of etiquette among their people than such a thing. From what my royal kinsman tells me, Master Frodo was already a most retiring sort who preferred to let his actions speak for themselves, and he has forbade his kin to speak of it to those who do not need to understand.”
“Then I suppose I must follow suit,” Erengil said, “although Captain Gilmaros will be most distressed to hear that those in your land know the least of what was accomplished by these four.”
“Who is Captain Gilmaros?” Pet asked as she absently took one of the buns.
“The captain of the Guard of the Citadel of Minas Tirith. When he is in the city and does his duty as one of the King’s Guard, your Captain Peregrin serves under the orders of Captain Gilmaros and Lord Hardorn.”
“And whose orders does my Cousin Frodo Baggins listen to?”
Erengil laughed. “Lords of the realm aren’t usually expected to need to answer to the orders of any but the King and their wives, although I have heard Lord Samwise make very strong suggestions a time or two to Lord Frodo for the sake of his health that he responded to.”
“And from what Berevrion and Halladan tell me, he questioned the suggestions of the King on more than one occasion. I fear Master Frodo Baggins has a distinct mind of his own, if all I hear is true.” Black Glove shook his head. “But all say he is a most responsible individual, and it appears he has surrounded himself with those who are like-minded.”
“Can you tell me how he lost his finger, at least?” Pet asked. Ronica looked at her with surprise, for this was a detail of which she’d been unaware.
The faces of both Men became very solemn. “He lost it when he was saved from a fate worse than death,” Erengil said quietly. “He once told me it was better to have lost his finger than what could have been lost, and he would rather have died indeed than what was befalling him at the time. To have been taken at the last by that....” He shuddered visibly and went quiet.
“Do you know why Sharkey wanted rings?” she added rather tentatively, after a moment.
Both Men looked at her closely. “They wanted rings?” Black Glove’s voice was almost stern. “How do you know they wanted rings?”
“Well, the Gatherers and Sharers took lots of things, and especially silver and jewelry; but although they’ve found a lot of things and returned them, they’ve never returned any rings that were stolen--not that we know of, at least. We were talking about it last night, my brother and little sister and me. And we were wondering if the ring Cousin Frodo Baggins would have inherited from his dad might have been special or something, although they had a time getting it off him after Cousin Drogo died, Great-aunt Lobelia told my Aunt Lavinia.”
Erengil looked at the Ranger and asked something in a language neither Pet nor Ronica understood. However, Petunia heard two words she did know--as Black Glove answered, she heard the words Bilbo Baggins.
“Did Cousin Bilbo have something to do with it all, then?” she asked in the silence that followed whatever the Ranger said.
The two Men exchanged looks, and at last Black Glove said, “The ring worn by Master Frodo’s father would have meant nothing to anyone other than those in his family, although the fact it was a ring obviously would have drawn the attention of Saruman’s creatures to it, for they indeed would have been directed to particularly find rings. However, I can say no more than that without the permission of Frodo Baggins.” He sighed. “Have you seen your Cousin Frodo Baggins since his return?”
She shook her head. “No, for I’ve not been that far from home till now, and he hasn’t visited Hardbottle. He’s been back and forth to Michel Delving, and maybe a couple times to the Tooklands and once to Buckland that I know of; but he’s not been down in the South Farthing. But my da’s seen him, and my brothers and my little sister.”
“How do you know he’s lost a finger?”
“I’ve heard it from folks who did see it’s gone. But nobody seems to know how he lost it.”
“You know what Captain Peregrin’s uniform tabard looks like.”
“He’s ridden through Hardbottle with Captain Meriadoc, on his way to the southern borders. I’ve seen them both with their armor and their swords and their special clothes to wear with them. I’ve seen Samwise Gamgee, too. But I’ve not seen Cousin Frodo Baggins since the last Free Fair we had, almost two years ago. Cousin Lotho didn’t let us have a Free Fair last summer.”
“Do you like your Cousin Frodo?”
She nodded. “He seems nice, and my mum likes him--says he’s very, very responsible and thoughtful. And even Cousin Benlo likes him. Benlo’s family head for the Bracegirdles, you know. He wants Cousin Frodo Baggins to be elected Mayor this summer. Ever since Mayor Whitfoot made him deputy Mayor, Benlo says Cousin Frodo’s the best thing to happen to the Shire. And he tells the best stories, all about Elves and dragons and such.”
Erengil laughed. “One day they couldn’t find most of the pages who work in the Citadel, and it turned out he had them out in the King’s garden, telling them a story about someone playing tricks on some giant spiders.”
“Oh, I’ve heard that story. Cousin Bilbo was supposed to have done that when he went with the Dwarves to steal the treasure from the Dragon.”
Black Glove asked, rather carefully, “Did you know Bilbo Baggins?”
Pet shook her head. “No, for he left the Shire before I was born. But everyone knows he was supposed to have stolen treasure from a dragon.”
“As indeed he did,” Black Glove smiled, “the wily old Hobbit. I doubt I would have believed his tales if Gandalf and various Dwarves hadn’t assured me they were true. As for the tale of the spiders, I have it on the best of authority that story is told a bit fancifully, but that it is also perfectly true. Both Prince Legolas and Lord Gloin have verified it. Prince Legolas has spoken of taking his hunters and scouts to follow the Dwarves’ back-trail through the forest and finding the clearing where the Spiders had hung the Dwarves from the trees, with the twelve sets of silk, each obviously slit open by an Elven blade, still hanging there, blowing in the breeze. It gave the Elves of Thranduil’s citadel no end of confusion, trying to figure out what had become of the wielder of the Elven blade.”
“You have met Prince Legolas?” asked Erengil.
“When he came to Rivendell--I had been riding with an Elven patrol up in the pass when he came over it with word for Gandalf of Gollum’s escape, close on the heels of Lord Gloin and his son and their companions, including two envoys from Brand of Dale’s court. The Creator was drawing those who had word of the matter to Elrond’s home for the last council on Sauron’s actions.”
Finally over her abashment, Ronica asked, “But who is Sauron?”
“The tales of Mordor are not told here?” asked Erengil.
The smaller Hobbit lass shook her head as she neatly ate her second sweet bun.
Black Glove sighed. “Erengil, having served in Minas Tirith within sight of the walls of that land, could tell you much. Sauron was one of the servants of the Powers who followed Morgoth into evil, and on the vanquishment of his chosen master remained here in Middle Earth, seeking first to find a way to bring Morgoth back, then seeking to take his master’s place as the lord of evil, an ambition he was accomplishing when Elendil led our peoples out of the ruin of Númenor to found the twin kingdoms of Arnor here in the north and Gondor there in the south. Sauron raised a last army of the creatures of terror and such Men as worshiped him, and sought to destroy all who stood in opposition to him, and for ten years they fought him--the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, until at last, when Gil-galad and Elendil both died at his hands to bring him down, Sauron fell and Elendil’s remaining son Isildur was able to cut from him the--the token of his power, for he’d created an item in which to concentrate much of his will to evil.
“It took three thousand years for him to gather sufficient strength and power to fully rise again, but in the end Sauron did so, and returned to Mordor to build another great army, seeking again to fully destroy all who denied him authority over them, and this time he was utterly vanquished, although again at great cost. And each of the four who came out of the Shire to our aid faced the evil of the Enemy as he could, helping to destroy his power. But we were only successful because that item in which so much of his will and power was concentrated was still kept from him, until at last It came to where It might be destroyed. All would have been for naught had that come again into his hands, for with that in his possession he could have overwhelmed all opposition.”
At the utter seriousness to be seen in the eyes of the two Men and one Woman who companied them in this quiet garden, Petunia felt the hair at the back of her neck and on the top of her feet stand up, and felt a shiver take her.